5 conclusions from the weekend’s action and the latest in the January transfer window:
1. The shackles are off at the Emirates Stadium
Arsenal fizzled on Saturday without the sulky presence of Alexis Sanchez, although they were helped by some comedic, slap-dash defending from Crystal Palace. The tactical over-reliance on one player, coupled with the greediness sometimes associated with ruthless goalscorers, can stifle those around them.
The Gunners looked more fluid tactically, which allowed Mesut Ozil more freedom to roam behind Alexander Lacazette. The imminent signing of Henrikh Mkhitaryan will further banish the ghosts of the petulant Chilean.
Occasionally, when the so-called ‘best player’ at a club finally leaves after several months of transfer rumours, the team suddenly improves. The key example is that of Ruud Van Nistelrooy at Manchester United. Van Nistelrooy was consistently United’s top goalscorer, yet his exit coincided with his former club winning three Premier League titles in a row as well as a Champions League triumph.
On a side note, Manchester United officially announced the signing with a video of Sanchez delicately playing ‘Glory Glory Man United’ on a piano before stepping out on to the Old Trafford turf to take a selfie in his new gear. My initial reaction was simply:
“It’s official. We’re all living in a dystopian nightmare”
Anyway, all of that nonsense aside, I expect Sanchez to become another legend of the number seven shirt and to lead United to Premier League triumph next season.
2. Chelsea’s haphazard pursuit of a target man continues despite a stellar attacking display
The sparkling trio of Eden Hazard, Willian and Michy Batshuayi distracted the focus away from disturbing rumblings behind the scenes by cruising past Brighton.
The lines of power at Stamford Bridge have always been blurred, although Antonio Conte, perhaps more so than any Chelsea manager before him, has been brutally honest about Roman Abramovich’s meddling in the Blues’ playing squad. When asked about the previous spending sprees, the Italian said:
“There is maybe this habit here, but I’m not involved in the transfer market. I give my opinion but the club decide on the players they want to buy, to invest in”
Some commenters have linked Chelsea’s recent blip with Conte’s embarrassing and drawn-out war of words with Jose Mourinho. While the United boss is an irritating fly in the ointment, the Chelsea manager’s frustrations more likely stem from a lack of control over his own club’s transfer activity.
After winning the Premier League title in your first season in charge, being linked with Peter Crouch, Andy Carroll and Ashley Barnes as replacements for Diego Costa would test even a saint’s patience.
Of course, the logic of buying a target man as a back-up for Alvaro Morata is sound. The striker’s partnership with fellow Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta is the most potent in Europe, where they have combined on several occasions via crosses from deep. Conte said on Boxing Day:
“There is this great link between Azpilicueta and Alvaro, it’s not the first time. I hope they continue in this way. Morata has to pay for not just one dinner but more for Azpi, if they invite me I want to go with them”
While the obvious reaction to Chelsea’s interest in Crouch, Carroll and Barnes is one of laughter, the effective supply from the flanks at Stamford Bridge does indeed lend itself to signing a striker with true prowess in the air, not least a player who is happy enough to warm the bench as back-up for Morata.
3. Sergio Aguero shines without the presence of Jesus
Ever since Gabriel Jesus strolled off the pitch in tears at Selhurst Park on New Year’s Eve, the onus has been on Sergio Aguero to be the focal point for their prolific attack. In three games without the Brazilian, Aguero has clocked four goals and one assist. It seems absurd that upon Jesus’s recovery from knee injury, Aguero will most likely be relegated back to the bench.
Manchester City perhaps missed Jesus’s dynamism in the blood and thunder encounter at Anfield, but Aguero made amends for his lacklustre display against Liverpool with a perfect hat-trick on Saturday evening. It must also be remembered that Aguero has made an incredible recovery from the serious car crash he suffered in Amsterdam at the end of September.
Smugly, I captained the Argentine in my fantasy football team, yet even I am dubious that his first goal has not been scratched off by the Dubious Goals Committee. Although Manchester City’s next three games in the league look inviting; West Brom (H), Burnley (A), Leicester (H). Expect more goals from ‘Kun’ in the absence of Jesus.
4. The relegation dog-fight will be the closest in living memory
At the time of writing, only six points separate Watford in 10th and Swansea in 20th position. A series of managers, most recently Marco Silva, have bitten the dust this season, perhaps harshly given the close proximity of those teams to qualification into the Europa League.
As Sam Allardyce’s Everton have proved, even mediocre form can send you up the league in a matter of weeks; they currently sit in ninth. Burnley are comfortably six points ahead of the Toffees in eighth place, despite not winning in their last eight league matches.
The performance of English teams in Europe this season has put the Premier League firmly back on the map. As the clubs in the higher echelons continue to improve, those fighting it out in the bottom half of the league look increasingly wretched. Still, as it looks like a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’, Manchester City win the Premier League, there will at least be late drama in the relegation dog-fight.
5. The Rihad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy duo is in full swing
Since taking over, Claude Puel has taken his Leicester side from one point above the relegation zone to seventh place in the league. It’s made a mockery of Stan Collymore’s paranoid and dumbfounded response to him getting the job in place of a manager from good ol’ Blighty.
The rapid rise up the league has come thanks in no small part to the reinvigorated duo of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy. The Algerian, in particular, who has made no secret of his desire to leave the club, has timed his form well for potential suitors in the transfer window.
The Leicester boss claims that Mahrez is a better player now than when the Foxes lifted the Premier League trophy:
“He can make some penetration like one or two years ago but also he can organise the play with one or two touches and can give assists – he is more complete.”
A cynic would claim these comments are designed to empower his club’s management team during the upcoming negotiations with bigger clubs, but his assertion that the Algerian’s style has evolved is true. Mahrez is more involved in the build-up of play, and seven of Mahrez’s nine goals this season have come since Puel was appointed in October. Vardy himself has two goals and two assists in his last four, which has included difficult trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge.
Puel insists Mahrez will not leave Leicester in January, but it looks increasingly likely that the Mahrez-Vardy duo will be split up sooner or later. It’s a real shame; in this sort of form, they are a joy to behold.